I stepped into my 6th grade classroom for the first time on 4 January 2021. Schools in Karnataka had just been given the green light to reopen and the low-income private school I teach in had opened its doors for grades 6"10. The last eight months were tough. Class strength online fluctuated between four to 15 and it was impossible to reach all 50 students on the roster. I had told my students I would be joining them that Monday morning, and sure enough, I was greeted by 35 grinning faces, all eager to meet a teacher they had known only virtually thus far.
The pandemic has been a spanner in the works especially for students like mine, those in government and low-income private schools. With schools remaining closed and online education being a luxury only few can afford, most children in the country have had a 10-month long break from any kind of studying. Many children do not have storybooks or elaborate workbooks to practice what they know already.
With early 2021 being the first time most students have stepped into a classroom in almost a year, they have effectively lost a few years' worth of learning. Not only have students missed out on the past year due to schools remaining closed, they have also forgotten what they had learned in the months prior to the lockdowns.
Existing statistics tell a dire story. The Annual Survey of Education Reports (ASER) across the years has highlighted the massive gap between grade levels of students and their reading levels. In 2014, the ASER reported: "Of all children enrolled in Std V, about half cannot read at Std II level".
In 2017, the ASER exclusively looked at the age group of 14-18 years. It was reported that "less than 40% of the sampled youth" could calculate the correct answer for problems about Time. This year, these numbers look a lot worse. Research conducted by Azim Premji University shows 92 percent of children in class 2, 89 percent in class 3, 90 percent in class 4, 95 percent in class 5, and 93 percent in class 6 have lost "at least one specific ability" from the previous year.
The pandemic has not only stripped bare the severe inequality between students at different income levels but has also exacerbated it. Even for teachers today, this paints a dismal picture. As many as 40,000 teachers lost their job in Karnataka during the lockdowns of the past year; as did 60,000 teachers in Maharashtra. Adding to this, teachers across the country have either been underpaid or not at all. Classrooms today reflect the people inside them -- anxious, uncertain and absolutely unprepared.
The material conditions of poverty hold an inherent, debilitating trauma and this year has added to this distress in multitudes. Children in low-income public and private schools are facing an unprecedented amount of traumatic stress. In addition to lost learning, children spending extended amounts of time at home leaves them susceptible to physical, verbal and sexual abuse.
The first week of the first lockdown (25"31 March 2020) saw a 50 percent increase in the number of phone calls on the Childline India helpline. In mid-April 2020, the India Child Protection Fund reported a "significant increase" in the demand for child pornography and child sexual abuse material.
The trauma from this kind of abuse may also be compounded by factors like deaths of family members, loss of family income, forced migration, forced labour, and increased isolation. Trauma caused by such adversity manifests itself in classrooms in ways that teachers are not entirely equipped to handle.
The way forward
The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, in its chapter on Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE), places special importance on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL); specifically for children in the age group of 4"8 years. SEL essentially enables children to pick up interpersonal skills, implement emotion management techniques, and develop an empathetic outlook.
Most importantly, SEL helps establish safe spaces. The pandemic has familiarised children of varying ages to experiences they may have never been exposed to. Given the unprecedented amount of trauma this past year, there is an urgent need for classrooms to become spaces that make students feel safe and comfortable. It is not enough for SEL to be emphasised for ECCE, it must be made accessible to middle and high school students as well.
SEL must be followed through with the implementation of a trauma-informed pedagogical approach. At its core, trauma-informed pedagogy enables teachers to recognise that trauma manifests itself in unexpected ways. Heightened anxiety, emotional outbursts, irritability and bad temper, disobedience, or incomplete homework and classwork, could all be attributed to trauma rather than just laziness or disrespect.
Such an approach to teaching allows educators to better facilitate SEL spaces and make their students feel secure in the classroom. The National Curriculum Framework for Teacher Education 2009 (NCFTE 2009), much like the NEP 2020, prioritises social and emotional wellbeing only for ECCE. Training secondary and higher secondary teachers in trauma-informed pedagogy is also necessary, especially in a post-pandemic context.
I also view implementing SEL and trauma-informed learning as an investment. It is often spoken of in the context of higher-income schools and as a measure that schools can take after they have access and syllabus down pat.
However, implementing SEL must be done in tandem with teaching. Applying these changes does not have to be time or effort-intensive. Much of building a sensitive culture in classrooms can be worked into everyday teaching. What was once a conscious effort to centre empathy in the classroom has now become the norm for both my students and myself. SEL activities like Circle Time, where students are encouraged to listen to each other without judgment, help build a classroom culture that fosters kindness. Fortunately, these are easily transferable to online classrooms.
According to The Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), SEL implementation can result in academic performance increasing by 11 percentile points. The positive impacts of SEL last long after schooling - for about 18 years after programs are implemented.
Providing constructive feedback and positive reinforcement, celebrating diversity, and building relationships with students outside of academics all help foster a direly needed feeling of safety. Additionally, peer-driven learning spaces, extra remedial classes, and collaborative decision-making help build accountability and ownership within students. This helps children position themselves as enthusiastic and active stakeholders in their own education.
Building relationships with students outside the bounds of the textbook is also helpful in making them comfortable in the classroom. In a world where adults often treat children like, well, children, establishing mutual respect goes a long way.
The next few years will see the Indian education system stumble and struggle to cope with the effects of the pandemic. Continuing the way we have for all these years is simply not an option. Increased drop-out rates, traumatic stress, anxiety, and decreased skill levels cannot all be fixed with good old-fashioned disciplining. The problems the pandemic poses within the classroom must be answered with sensitivity.
A kinder, more accommodating classroom is the only way education can posit itself as the great equaliser again. Children who have been neglected over the last year need nurturing and encouragement when they step into schools this year. Investing in and implementing SEL and trauma-informed pedagogy is the only way forward.